The crowd last night at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which the internet tells me is the oldest regularly operating live theatrical venue on the continent, howled through just about every minute of the midnight premiere of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Now, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum. One man’s “well, that was just plain stupid” can always be another’s Dare to Be Stupid. But I might gently suggest that there wasn’t a lot Weird could have done to leave this audience stone-faced. Here we were, after all, at the first screening of TIFF’s famously rowdy Midnight Madness program in about three years. People came with chuckles in the chamber. They laughed at the “strobe effects” warning before the movie. They were thoroughly down to clown. And that could only benefit this officially unofficial, goofily fabricated version of the famous song parodist’s life story — a comedy that never stopped feeling like a three-minute sketch uncomfortably and unnecessarily expanded to nearly two full hours.
In fact, Weird is exactly that. Its inspiration is a dozen-years-old fake trailer from Funny or Die, whose single joke was, “What if you plugged the clean-mouthed, clean-living polka maestro with the library of food-based Top 40 spoofs into a gritty, debaucherous, rock-and-roll biopic?” The real Yankovic has, in fact, lived a plenty eventful life, marked by sudden tragedy, a few legal dustups, and nearly half a century of work in the overlapping music and comedy worlds. Pretty much none of that makes it into Weird, which Yankovic and director Eric Appel — who together conceived of the original viral video — instead use as an opportunity to riff on some of the moldy conventions of the music biopic. There is, more or less, just one joke in this expanded take on the conceit, too, and that’s creating a fictional reality where Yankovic (played with a certain winning earnestness by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) became the biggest star in the world.
And so here’s a young Al being struck with inspiration while staring at a package of bologna, commenting aloud that no one actually gets famous overnight (right before turning on the radio to discover that he’s instantly famous), and meeting a parade of fellow countercultural, comedy-nerd favorites like Dr. Demento, Wolfman Jack, and Pee-wee Herman, all played by … fellow comedians winking at their own impeccable good taste in influences. Walk Hard got to a lot of this stuff 15 years ago, and with much more precision. (Why exactly is Weird narrated by the baritone trailer-voice guy? Isn’t this supposed to be a lampoon of music biopics, not the advertisements for music biopics?) Comparisons would be easier to avoid if Appel and Yankovic didn’t tread some of the same ground, blowing huge stretches of the runtime on a subplot about Al’s disapproving dad.
Weird could have used more of Yankovic’s unique wit, and less of the random sub-ZAZ material that pads out its slim story.
Plenty of the real Yankovic’s wholesome dork-vaudeville spirit seeps into the material through gags like a very Al version of the stereotypical wild teenage party (I did laugh, I’ll confess, at cool kids earnestly debating the merits of polka deep cuts) and a general willingness to be self-deprecating about the unique space he’s carved in the pop-culture consciousness. No one could really confuse Weird for self-flattery; that would require a lot more jokes hinging on actual particulars of his work or cultural footprint. The movie doesn’t build much on the original Funny or Die strategy of merely throwing glasses, a frizzy fro, and a brightly patterned shirt on the boilerplate of melodramatic Hollywood cautionary tales about the music biz. It could have used more of Yankovic’s unique wit, and less of the random sub-ZAZ material that pads out its slim story, including a whole superfluous goof on action-movie excess, relevant perhaps only for clowning on the type of testosterone fests that were huge in the heyday of Like a Virgin and Like a Surgeon. (Evan Rachel Wood capably takes over for Olivia Wilde as the queen of pop. For perhaps obvious reasons, Michael Jackson is only mentioned, not portrayed.)
The general laziness of the parody is a shame, and maybe a surprise. For all Weird leans on just a handful of his most popular spoofs (this is not an especially exhaustive love letter to the man’s legacy or his diehard fans), Yankovic has proven himself to be a sly, skillful parodist in his main medium, far beyond his novelty re-skins of pop hits; you can hear his music smarts in his general genre pastiches and all-purpose artist parodies. Hear, for example, Germs, a priceless — and compositionally sophisticated — Nine Inch Nails tribute that friend, fellow critic, and Weird Al superfan Nick Allen turned me on to. Nick, incidentally, recently ponied up for a backstage, artist-meet experience on Yankovic’s tour that ultimately took place with, for safety reasons, a thick plate of glass between him and Al. The signed picture commemorating the meeting was the two posed separately and then photoshopped together. Afraid to say that’s funnier — and weirder — than just about anything in Weird.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.
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